Trump Angst Wracks Republicans (Again) as 2024 Announcement Looms
Before the votes are even fully counted in the 2022 midterm election, Republicans are starting to face a decision: Do they stick with Donald J. Trump into 2024 or leave him behind?
For seven years, in office and out, before and after his supporters overran the Capitol, Mr. Trump has exerted a gravitational pull on the party’s base, and through it, the country’s politics, no matter how hard lawmakers, strategists, officials and even his own vice president tried to escape his orbit.
Now, after a string of midterm losses by candidates Mr. Trump supported, there are signs of another Republican effort to inch the party away from the former president ahead of his expected announcement on Tuesday of another run for the White House — even as his allies on Capitol Hill demand new acts of fealty to him.
It has not escaped Republicans that this week represented the third consecutive political cycle in which Democrats ran with considerable success against the polarizing former president. While they rarely spoke his name, Mr. Trump formed the background music to their attacks asserting that the Republican Party had grown too extreme.
He was featured in their fund-raising solicitations and made cameos in their television ads. The party even meddled in Republican primaries to help Trump-aligned candidates Democratic leaders thought would be easier to beat. Democrats won each of those races.
The tactics helped Democrats cast the election not as a referendum on the current, unpopular president, President Biden, but on an even more unpopular ex-president and his allies. It is a strategy they will try again next month in Georgia, where Senator Raphael Warnock faces a runoff contest against Herschel Walker, a Republican plucked from pro-football retirement by Mr. Trump. Already, some are looking beyond that race, dreaming of a 2024 contest that could feature, once again, Mr. Trump at the top of the ticket.
“As an American, the idea of another Trump campaign and all of his lies and divisiveness and his efforts to undermine American democracy is an absolute horror show,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “On the other hand, I got to say that as a politician who wants to see that no Republican is elected to the White House in 2024, from that perspective, his candidacy is probably a good thing.”
But if Mr. Trump remains a major motivator for Democrats, Republicans are starting to have to take sides, with his allies in Congress pressuring other Republicans to endorse his 2024 candidacy and a loyal band of senators looking for ways to undercut Senator Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in that chamber and the object of Mr. Trump’s scorn.
The divisions were certain to consume the House as well, as Representative Kevin McCarthy is trying to rally support behind his bid to be Speaker of the House. Jason Miller, a strategist assisting Mr. Trump with his campaign announcement, warned Friday, speaking on Steve Bannon’s internet radio show, that Mr. McCarthy “must be much more declarative that he supports President Trump” in 2024.
Some of the Republicans speaking out now have previously enabled Mr. Trump and his policies, either through public support or silence. While they long privately claimed to disdain Mr. Trump’s politics, they were fearful of crossing the party’s base.
Now, the party is reaping political consequences. Trump-backed candidates lost key Senate races in Pennsylvania and Arizona, as well as several House races from Alaska to North Carolina. On Saturday, Democrats were one Senate seat away from maintaining their control in the chamber and were neck-and-neck in an unsettled race in Nevada. In the House, despite predictions of a G.O.P. wave, neither party had secured a majority.
Since Tuesday’s election, The Wall Street Journal editorial page and The New York Post — owned by the conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch — called for Mr. Trump to be tossed aside. Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears of Virginia and Robin Vos, the powerful Assembly speaker in Wisconsin — both major Trump allies during and after his presidency — said Mr. Trump shouldn’t be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
The National Review summed up the message of the midterms as, “Republicans: Trump is your problem. Wake up.”
Republican moderates used the moment to bemoan the party’s plunge into conspiracy theories and divisive issues that light up the right-wing media. Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, called for a return to classic fiscal conservatism. Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire said during a SiriusXM Radio interview Friday that Mr. Trump risked “mucking up” the party’s chances of winning in Georgia.
And Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who spoke at a Trump rally in Sioux City days before the election, said on Twitter that it was time to move on from Mr. Trump’s pet issue. “Quit talking abt 2020,” he wrote.
Even on the Republican National Committee, the 168-member body that has been among Mr. Trump’s most immovable defenders, cracks are beginning to show — over not just messaging, but the messenger.
“We can’t just jump and run and, you know, rah-rah Trump and jump over the cliff,” said Kyshia Brassington, an R.N.C. member from North Carolina, who joined the committee two years ago as the party remade itself in Mr. Trump’s image. “I think that we need to look at every one of the viable candidates who can run and win for 2024.”
Andy Reilly, an R.N.C. member from Pennsylvania who served as a delegate for Mr. Trump at the last two presidential nominating conventions, said the former president’s intervention in races in Pennsylvania — endorsing Dr. Mehmet Oz for Senate and Doug Mastriano for governor, who both lost Tuesday — had cost the party the elections.
“He is an impediment at this point,” Mr. Reilly said.
The party has been here before — repeatedly. Since 2015, there have been plenty of moments when Republicans tried — and failed — to put some distance between themselves and Mr. Trump.
First there was Mr. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, and then the attacks on a federal judge’s Mexican ancestry, the “Access Hollywood” revelations late in the 2016 campaign, his public declaration that he trusted Vladimir Putin more than he did American intelligence agencies.More recently, Mr. Trump has waged a two-year misinformation campaign, claiming his 2020 defeat was “rigged.” His supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent attempt to disrupted the peaceful transfer of power. He now faces investigations into efforts to overturn the election results in Georgia, into his company’s finances and into his handling of classified documents.
Throughout it all, Republican officials and major conservative media figures have issued denunciations and other carefully worded complaints, but most have stopped short of actively working against him.
Mr. Trump’s plans to run for president, which he is expected to announced on Tuesday, could force the issue in ways not seen since Mr. Trump’s first campaign, as party leaders are asked to declare their allegiances to Mr. Trump or other potential rivals.
“We need DeSantis,” Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan said of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who won re-election on Tuesday by 19 percentage points and has quickly emerged as a favorite in a still-theoretical G.O.P. presidential primary. “That should be lit up in neon and projected onto the side of the R.N.C.”
Mr. Meijer, who lost his primary race to a Trump-backed challenger after voting to impeach Mr. Trump, hardly represents Republican leadership, which has largely stayed silent or pledged support. John Gibbs, the Republican who ousted Mr. Meijer, lost the general election to a Democrat.
Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking House Republican, endorsed Mr. Trump for president on Friday ahead of his anticipated campaign announcement on Tuesday.
“President Trump has always put America First, and I look forward to supporting him so we can save America,” Ms. Stefanik said on Twitter.
Other lawmakers rushed to show su